Long Walks On Leafy Streets

1/18/2021 Montreal, Canada    
What do we want from life?

I just finished reading a great story from the New York Times about the British television series "Up" about a group of kids in England who had been interviewed every seven years starting from age 7. The Director of the series Michael Apted died recently. What started as an exploration of English society and the question "Does who you are at seven determine who you are at seventy?" had become an exploration of life itself and Apted had become kind of a father figure to some of the participants.

My best line from the article is '"I am still the same little kid, really," he said (at age 63) over the footage of himself at 7. "I think all of us are."' Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about listening to the child within.
These days, over Facebook, I am reconnecting with many of the childhood friends. I often wonder of what became of the ones I lost contact with. Did life turn out the way they wanted?

It also makes me think of whether I am doing the best I can for Prashant, who is five now. Am I providing the right guidance? Are we giving him the right nutrients? Are we being too protective? Are we giving him all he needs to get the best out of life? During this pandemic I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with him. Lately he has begun to ask questions like a big man. Once I asked him to sit and meditate with me. I told him it would help him to become calm, happy and strong. He asked, "Is it not what vegetables are for?" Yesterday I was teaching him to ride a bike. He asked me how I came to know all of those things. I am sure it was an innocent question but sometimes I think he is surprised that I know anything at all. Some of his other questions (apart from questions about animals which are numerous and ubiquitous) are why the earth seems flat and how stars came to be, etc.,

I am also organizing an online meditation meeting on Mondays at 6pm. It is intended for the Howard University community but is open to everyone. Last Monday we were talking about the purpose of meditation and mindfulness. What are we doing it for? What comes after? I want to discuss this a little bit, along with the question of what I think is the purpose of my own life. I might never get to a definitive answer to these questions. These are just some of my thoughts about it.

In my thirties I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do in my life, how to make a difference in the world, how to advance in my career, and last but absolutely not the least, how to find a partner. Early in my forties I decided that I am just going to enjoy life, not worry about finding a partner so much, and just focus on doing my best. Perhaps it was the summer I spent teaching at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. I went hiking up Mauna Kea and biking up Haleakala. That experience really refreshed me and set me on a better course for life. Soon afterward I would meet Nicole and the rest is history.

It was not that I gave up on meeting a partner. Instead, by not focusing on the results I was able to be in a place where I was open to opportunities and better equipped to take advantage of them. It is an often-repeated cliché that life is about the journey, not the destination. In sports they constantly talk about focusing attention on the next ball, the next shot, and so on. I have concluded that in my life the best way I can contribute to the world is by being as mindful as I can each moment.

Being mindful is not just about being in the moment. It is really about rising above our lower ego. The best explanation of this I have seen is in the book "Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. He shows how the ego is manifested as worries about the past and the future. When we really focus on the action at hand we are reaching to something beyond our little self. Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about how we are like the waves on the ocean. When we are truly mindful we are able to feel that we are part of the same ocean, and not worry about our individual accomplishments. In the Gita Lord Krishna asks us to leave the fruits of our action to him. He says we only have control of our actions, and not the results. That is another way of saying we can only control what we do in the present. In the Bible a common theme is to surrender ourselves to God. The following passage (John 15:1-7) illustrates this clearly: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." An ancient Jewish philosopher said "The past is gone already; the future is not yet here; the present is merely the span of the blink of an eye; so there is no room to worry about anything."

Mindfulness opens us up to the wonders of our existence, this world, and this universe. It also makes it possible for us to contribute to the world to the best of our abilities. When we rise above our little self and understand that we are all one, compassion is born in us. With compassion for all beings, we are able to live and interact in a way that will truly make a difference in the world. Being mindful does not mean forgetting the past or not making plans. It is really about not dwelling in the past or worrying about the future, and thus rising above our little self.

Speaking of compassion, I have also been thinking about the third of America that still believes that the election is stolen. How do I think of them compassionately? While I am delighted by the election results, especially the ones in Georgia, I am also worried about the supporters of the current President. All I can do is to try to see, as well as I could, that all are children of God and that circumstances can create certain emotions and thoughts in people and make them act in certain ways. Perhaps an opportunity will come up where I can talk to some of them and hopefully cause a change of heart.

I do hope that the Republican party survives this and comes out the better for it. Thich Nhat Hanh often says that the left and the right inter-are. One cannot exist without the other. This is a general theme in Buddhism. Darkness cannot exist without light, etc., Generally speaking, conservatives want to preserve what is good in the past and progressives want to move to the future. For a healthy society both are needed. If it doesn't build on what is good from the past it will have difficulty evolving and moving to the future. On the other hand if it is stuck in the past it would stagnate and decay.

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